As both employers and employees struggle with ever-rising health care and health insurance costs, more attention is being paid to how to achieve or maintain good health and avoid big medical bills. Wellness and prevention are becoming key strategies.

From an employee standpoint, staying well or improving one’s health is an excellent financial investment.

You keep more of your hard-earned money, are more productive, and therefore more valuable to your employer, have more years to spend with your loved ones and more years to enjoy your retirement. What’s not to like?

I get asked all the time what are the top five things I can do to protect or improve my health? Here’s my list of what you can do in 2012:

Increase physical activity: Getting active is the closest thing to a silver bullet that exists for improved health. Even 5-10 minutes of increased physical activity a day (for example: rigorous walking) can positively affect mood, reduce blood pressure and improve cardiovascular and metabolic (lipids and sugar in the blood) status. Make time each day for moderate physical activity.

Achieve gradual weight loss: If you are overweight, lose a pound a month in 2012. On average, American adults gain a pound a year over their lives and it adds up by middle age. It is also fueling the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the U.S. A gradual 10 percent weight loss coupled with increased physical activity reduces your risk of diabetes by 50 percent.

Make one positive dietary change a month: Examine your dietary habits for empty calories and make small positive changes (if you are a soda drinker, reducing the amount of soda you drink by two servings a week). Painless small changes are sustainable and really add up to improved health.

Talk with your primary care doctor about appropriate tests for your age. Uncovering potentially significant health issues at an early, treatable stage can avoid substantial expense and suffering that can occur if they are left untreated.

Think of yourself as being healthy – and then take small steps (see above) toward that goal. As a doctor working to improve the health of employees, I have seen over and over the negative effects of poor self image. If you think you are unhealthy, you will be. If you think you aren’t, studies clearly show you’ll take steps toward good health.

Since the cost of health care and insurance are often split between employee and employer, here are five things employers can do to reduce health benefit expenses in 2012:

Invest in the health of your employees rather than just pay for sick care insurance. Employers should invest in keeping their most valuable resource healthy. Employers don’t wait for machinery to fail before taking preventative maintenance action – the same is true for employees. Invest in their health.

Ditch the doughnuts. It amazes me how often I hear a CEO talk about wanting a wellness program and then see nothing but unhealthy choices in their own vending machines or the doughnuts on the table for a meeting. Provide healthy options.

Walk the talk: Management at all levels must be educated and motivated to “do what I say and what I do” to really underscore the importance of good health. There is no stronger message than seeing the boss take a 20-minute walk at lunch or eat a healthy snack.

Track progress toward good health – too many wellness programs make grand promises about improving employee health but don’t rigorously measure if their program actually produces results. Know where you want to go and measure your progress.

Have a candid conversation with your employees. The trajectory of health insurance costs are causing more and more companies to reduce their benefits or shift more costs to employees — or both. This is not a long-term solution. Engage your employees in being part of the solution.

Unhealthy behaviors are fueling the chronic disease epidemic in the U.S. that will overwhelm all cost control.

We must shift away from a focus on sick care to prevention. Start your new year off right by taking steps to improve your health.